Friday, March 14, 2014

'Satchmo At The Waldorf' Offers A Sterling Performance by John Douglas Thompson

John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

There are three really good reasons to see Satchmo At The Waldorf, now on view at the Westside Theatre. 

Reason Number One: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as iconic jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pensive and in poor health near the end of his career and of his life. 

Reason Number Two: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as Armstrong’s long-time manager Joe Glaser, a tough-as-nails businessman and confidant. 

Reason Number Three: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, harshly judgmental of Armstrong’s popular appeal to a largely white audience through his recordings of such mainstream tunes as “Hello Dolly” and “What A Wonderful World.” 

Playwright Terry Teachout, who is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, has written biographies of Armstrong and Duke Ellington, so he knows his way around the world of jazz performers as well as the theater.

But it is very difficult to pull off a truly original and compelling bio-play. I Am My Own Wife comes to mind as one that met both criteria, but in that case, the play's intriguing story was brought to stellar heights owing to the extraordinary performance by Jefferson Mays.

Satchmo At The Waldorf does not rise to that level save for the bravura acting, in which Thompson flips among the three characters pretty much instantaneously through shifts in body language and voice, abetted nicely by Kevin Adams’s lighting design.  As Armstrong, Mr. Thompson enters the stage in a state of exhaustion after a show; it’s a wonder he doesn’t exit in the same condition after performing for the entire 90 minutes without a break. 

The play takes place in 1970 in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Waldorf, where he and his wife Lucille (his fourth and best, he keeps reminding us) are ensconced in a suite at the luxury hotel. At the opening, he is worn and frazzled, and he barely makes it to the sofa in time to collapse and take several deep breaths through a mask attached to a tank of oxygen.

But as he starts to relax and change out of his dress clothes, he finds new momentum, and he rises to show us two tape recorders sitting on a table. One of them has recordings of his music, which we get to hear from time to time. This means, fortunately there is no pretense of trumpet playing by Thompson, though he does a fine job carrying out the rituals involved in cleaning and putting away the instrument. 

The second tape recorder is there for him to dictate his memoirs, which, of course, gives us the basis and rationale for the play.

Two themes emerge to shape the play beyond the basic stories of a life in the spotlight. One is that of public image vs. private reality. Behind the famous cheerful image of “Pops” Armstrong lay a man who knew his way around salty language, women, and reefer—learned early on growing up in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, not a cheery place for him. His mother was a prostitute and his father disappeared around the time of Armstrong’s birth in 1901. (He was also the grandson of slaves, a fact that does not come up during the course of the play). 

Armstrong began performing as a street singer in New Orleans as a pre-teen and seemed destined for a life as a street urchin and juvenile delinquent. But he also
did odd jobs for an immigrant Jewish family who treated him as one of their own and showed him a kinder and gentler way of living. During the play, Thompson sings a bit of Hebrew melody and tells us that Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life as a reminder of those happy days.

The cornet became a permanent fixture in his life around the same time, and music turned out to be Armstrong’s savior.  But it also led him into an insulated life, marked by a certain degree of naiveté in which he sometimes mistook friendliness for genuine friendship. Thus, we have the play’s second theme, that of abandonment and betrayal.

Early on, Armstrong aligned himself with Joe Glaser, who became his manager of four decades. Armstrong turned to him because he had ties to the mob and could—as he did—take care of all of the business arrangements and serve as a barrier between the performer and outside interference. But when Glaser died and failed to leave Armstrong a share of the business, the performer felt deeply betrayed.

Armstrong was also bitter that neither Glaser nor his other “pal” Bing Crosby ever invited him to their homes. But an even keener sense of being stabbed in the back came from his treatment by younger black jazz musicians who emerged during the time of the African American Civil Rights Movement. As embodied in the play by Miles Davis, that generation viewed Armstrong not as a revered mentor, but as a sell-out Uncle Tom, who, says Davis, “pulls out that hankie and starts jumping around like Jim Crow on a stick—all to make them sad white motherfuckers happy.”

Theatrically—even though the character of Davis is only given a few minutes of time—this is the most compelling element of the play. We can feel Armstrong’s pain at being rejected by the younger performers, not one of whom attended any of his shows in those later years. If you think back to his early days of actually being abandoned by his father and pretty much raising himself on the streets, it’s not difficult to connect the dots and understand why he was devastated by such treatment.

Based on these few short scenes, I would love to see a reworked play that puts Armstrong into contact with Davis and other musicians, both the rising stars and his contemporaries, instead of focusing on the performer and his deceased manager. We might lose the tour de force opportunity of one actor carrying the entire show, but I do think the dramatic tension would rise…well…dramatically.

Still, it is well worth the visit to see Satchmo At The Waldorf for the sterling performance by John Douglas Thompson. Previous outstanding work in the lead roles in Shakespeare’s Othello and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones have shown him to be an actor to be reckoned with, and his portrayal of Louis Armstrong and the others is no exception.  

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